A US-based conservation group expresses concerns that the Nam Ngum hydro-power cascade threatens poverty reduction efforts in Laos, adding that poor sector planning and lack of public participation are aggravating social and environmental impacts as described in an ADB report.
In a press release on January 22, the International Rivers group says that a report presented in Vientiane a day earlier on the cumulative impacts of hydro-power development in the Nam Ngum basin indicates that the proposed dams would have serious impacts on the livelihoods of tens of thousands of local people. But the flawed planning process makes it unlikely that this cumulative impact assessment, which is supported by ADB or the Asian Development Bank, will have any influence on any decision-making regarding whether or how to proceed with these developments.
How serious are the impacts posed by these developments? Shannon Lawrence, Lao Program Director of International Rivers says, “It depends on how many and which project will go forward; right now Nam Ngum 2 is under construction and the ADB study mentioned problem with the settlement in that project, so there is some social impact that need to be addressed; there is also Nam Ngum 3, the project that is most likely to go forward next; Nam Ngum 5, and dams on the tributaries such as Nam Lik and Nam Bak; and the extent of the impact really depends on just how many projects are developed and how that is done and how that project is managed and implemented.”
The cumulative assessment considers various scenarios for hydro-power and irrigation developments which include one dam in operation, another under construction, and at least six more proposed projects in the Nam Ngum basin. The study finds that blocked migration routes, destruction of riverine habitat, and water quality caused by these dams would gravely threaten the basin’s fisheries, including the productive fishery in the existing Nam Ngum 1 reservoir. The assessment says subsistence farmers, the poor, the landless, ethnically and otherwise marginalized groups with few alternatives, are likely to be hit hardest by any impact on habitats and wild-capture fisheries.
The Nam Ngum hydro-power cascade could undermine the Lao government’s poverty reduction commitments, particularly in the absence of revenue management or legally enforceable contracts to share benefits with affected people. “The impact of hydro-power development on the rural poor will depend largely on the existence of concrete mechanism that would guarantee that affected villagers are benefiting directly from the revenue earned by hydro-power projects through formal benefit-sharing mechanism,” says the cumulative impact assessment.
International Rivers says workshops on these hydro projects, like the one held in Vientiane recently to discuss the cumulative impact assessment, are being hastily organized, and little, if any, project information is made available to the public. Shannon Lawrence, International Rivers’ Lao Program Director, said decisions have been taken to proceed with hydro-power projects even before their individual and cumulative environmental and social impacts have been fully assessed. As an example, she cites Nam Ngum 2, which has been under construction since 2006, but no impact study result has been disclosed yet for this project.
In another development, the Norwegian advocacy group FIVAS has recently expressed concerns about the Theun-Hinboun Expansion Project. FIVAS Director Andrew Preston told VOA from Oslo that the expansion should not go forward until the company and shareholders have done a great deal more to resolve the impacts that are already there.
Laos plans to build as many as nine new dams and expands its hydro-power capacity 10 folds in the next eight years, insisting that these dams will not harm the environment.
Speaking at the opening of the meeting presenting the ADB report in Vientiane on January 21, Mr. Hadsady Sisoulath, Lao Deputy Director General of the Electricity Department, said the cumulative impact assessment would provide a basic planning and management roadmap to minimize the social and environment impacts of the projects and ensure the well-being of local people.
Listen to our special report for details in Lao.